Sets, reps, and other training basics
Some examples of traditional strength training exercises are biceps curls, abdominal crunches, bench presses, leg presses, lunges, and calf raises (more on these exercises to come). The current recommendation is to resistance train two to three nonconsecutive days per week and include all the major muscle groups of your body. If you are a novice at resistance work, you can start out with lighter weights or more flexible resistance bands that enable you to complete one to two sets of 12 to 15 repetitions (a.k.a. reps) on each exercise.
When you have completed this elementary stage of your weight program for six to eight weeks, you will be able to handle heavier weights and perform fewer reps per set. Ideally, your goal is to drop the number of reps that you can actually complete down into the range of 8 to 12 reps per set for optimal strength gains (and besides, aiming for an even 10 reps is easy to remember). While focusing on more reps using lower weights increases muscular endurance more effectively, lifting a greater resistance for fewer reps generally produces more overload on the muscle fibers and greater gains in muscular strength; consequently, you’ll recruit the faster fibers during the work, all of your muscle fibers will increase in size faster, and you’ll add more muscle mass. As a result, your muscles will then use more calories even at rest, your resting metabolism will increase, and your insulin sensitivity will improve. Alternately, when doing more than one set per exercise, you can increase the weight or resistance on each successive set, slightly decreasing the number of reps each time the load increases (for example, from 15 reps on the first down to 10 on the second, harder set).
How much versus how often
Having said all that, I now have to backtrack and say that, according to the latest research on older individuals, it appears to be far less important to focus on how much weight you lift than to simply make sure that you are lifting some. For instance, a study on postmenopausal women showed that both high-load (heavy weights, fewer reps) and high-repetition (lighter weights, more reps) resistance training were effective in increasing muscular strength and size, indicating that even easy resistance training is beneficial for older women. Likewise, muscular endurance, strength, and stair-climbing time improved in adults aged 60 to 83 doing only one set of 12 resistance exercises at either 50 percent of their 1-rep max (the maximum amount they can lift one time) for 13 reps or 80 percent of 1-rep max for 8 reps, which the participants did thrice weekly for 24 weeks.
Basically, then, you can choose either training regimen—lighter weights and more reps or heavier weights and fewer reps—and likely experience similar gains. You may even decide to vary easy days, where you do more reps with lighter weights, and hard days, when you lift heavier weights fewer times, depending on how motivated you feel on a given day and how much time you have to train. The only resistance training principles you absolutely need to follow are (1) to work a particular area of your body (i.e., upper body) no more frequently than every other day, and (2) to equally train muscles with opposite actions on a joint, such as the biceps and triceps muscles of your upper arm or the quadriceps and hamstring muscles of your thigh.
Resistance Training Dos and Don’ts
* Do resistance training that includes exercises using all parts of your body (upper and lower body, abdominal area, and lower back) two to three nonconsecutive days per week
* During each workout session, start with exercises that use multiple muscle groups first (e.g., thighs), and then isolate smaller muscle groups with additional exercises
* Train opposing muscle groups (such as biceps and triceps) equally to avoid injuries
* Do at least one set per exercise, preferably doing 8 to 12 repetitions to complete exhaustion
* Exhale fully as you work against or lift the resistance and inhale during the return to the starting position
* Take two to three minutes of rest between multiple sets on the same exercise
* Use as full a range of motion as possible around each joint during all exercises
* Allow at least 48 hours to recuperate between training on specific parts of your body (i.e., upper body, lower body, etc.)
* Stretch during and/or after resistance training workouts for greater strength gains
* During the first few weeks of training, focus on good body mechanics and technique, and then add on more weight or resistance—slowly
* Keep your torso and spine straight during all exercises (except abs and lower-back work)
* Consider finding a workout facility or gym that has either resistance training machines or free weights that you can use to push yourself with once your strength increases
* Lock your knees when your legs are supporting the weight (or your elbows during upper-body work)
* Pick up any weights off the floor by bending over with straight legs
* Fatigue your abdominal (“core”) muscles before completing other exercises, particularly when using free weights or resistance bands (as opposed to weight machines)
* Work the same muscle groups two consecutive days
* Hold your breath while doing resistance work
* Unduly twist your back or spine when doing any resistance work
* Do sit-ups with your back straight (rather than curling forward)
* Sacrifice your form just to add more weight, resistance, or repetitions
* Continue with an exercise if you feel a sharp or immediate pain in any joint or muscle
* Worry about how much you are lifting; instead, focus on making sure that you do resistance training at least once a week
Tip for the day: When two to three sets of 15 reps are easy for you to do (that is, you feel like you could do even more), make your resistance workouts progressive by adding some weight or resistance to each exercise and dropping the number of reps you are doing in each set back to no more than 12 to avoid reaching a plateau in your strength gains.